A hundred years from now, humans may remember 2014 as the year that we first learned that we may have irreversibly destabilized the great West Antarctic Ice Sheet, and thus set in motion more than 10 feet of sea level rise. It appears that 2015 will be the year we realize that East Antarctica is just as unstable.
Recently, an international team of scientists flew a number of research flights over the Totten Glacier of East Antarctica — the fastest-thinning sector of the world’s largest ice sheet — and took a variety of measurements to try to figure out the reasons behind its retreat. And the news wasn’t good: It appears that Totten, too, is losing ice because warm ocean water is getting underneath it.
“The idea of warm ocean water eroding the ice in West Antarctica, what we’re finding is that may well be applicable in East Antarctica as well,” says Martin Siegert, a co-author of the study .
In its alignment with the land and the sea, the Totten Glacier is similar to the West Antarctic glaciers, which also feature ice shelves that slope out from the vast sheet of ice on land and extend into the water. These ice shelves are a key source of instability, because if ocean waters beneath them warm, they can lose ice rapidly, allowing the ice sheet behind them to flow more quickly into the sea.
Particularly alarming, the study notes: “The global sea level potential of 3.5 m flowing through Totten Glacier alone is of similar magnitude to the entire probable contribution of the WAIS.”
Northern Hemisphere residents and Americans in particular should take note — when the bottom of the world loses vast amounts of ice, those of us living closer to its top get more sea level rise than the rest of the planet, thanks to the law of gravity.